Silos Culture Inside the Walls of Nonprofits Prevent Effective Social Media Use

BlogHer Original Post

Flickr Photo by Eqqman

One of my favorite things about writing a blog, are the conversations in the comments and sidebars (private email conversation).   I learn so much from those who have shared their stories and advice.  

This week I had an amazing private email thread with someone who works as a development professional at a well-established nonprofit institution.  I'll call her "Sally (not her real name).  Sally shared a story that illustrates the barriers that many nonprofit organizations face in adopting social media and harnessing its power leading to successful outcomes.  Her story illustrates the pressing need for culture change within nonprofits or as colleague, Allison Fine, puts it "organizational silos prevent people from empowering their edge." 


Source: Working Wikily

Sally's story illustrates the tension between working as an organization versus in a networked way or working wikily.   She allowed me to share her story if I stripped out all the identifying details. 

I am a nonprofit development professional.  I'm comfortable using social networks and other social media sites, although I use them as an individual, I see great potential for my nonprofit organization's fundraising efforts.

I asked about a SM policy when I started a new position in a nonprofit institution about seven months ago. I was told it was being formulated by the marketing department. The website and branding of this nonprofit institution is controlled by its marketing department (which oversees memberships and is often at odds with the development department, where my position is housed), and so this task fell to them. Still no policy, seven months later.

Not long ago, I created a minor stir by advocating that our voluntary young professionals group (host of several fundraising events and a responsibility in my job description) immediately start using Facebook, including the step of inviting current institution members to join a Facebook group. I was asked by marketing to submit a full proposal to them about Facebook and get their approval before going forward and for anything I post to the group. The young professionals group revolted.  They are now using Facebook on their own.  They recently agreed to add me as an administrator for the group.

This could have been avoided if we could just have the conversation across departments about our policy and approach to social network sites - from what we can do personally/individually to how we'll support, facilitate, or work with self-forming groups on social networks that want to support our institution.   My offer to help kickstart, research and join the social networking policy development process at work (from a fundraiser perspective) was also rebuffed.  Why is our institution stuck in silos and how can we transition out of this so we can effectively deploy a social networking strategy across boundaries of departments?

Does this sound like you and your nonprofit organization?  How do we change this and pave the way for effective social media use?

Geoff Livingston has been writing about social media adoption from the perspective of
corporations, government, and large nonprofits.   In a post called "The Cultural Challenge to Integration,"
he makes a case that short-term experiments can't harness the power of
social media unless there is full organizational engagement.   He
suggests an "organizational gut check" about organizational culture.  In the end, organizational leaders need to bring the right people to the table and stop thinking about social media in a silo or as tool-driven decisions.  He says it is up to the "c-suite" and whether they are ready to change from working as a silo organization and in a more networked way.

What is the process and pace of making this change?  Geoff Livingston, in his post, From the Silo to Hive, suggests that to succeed it needs to be evolutionary and not sudden.   He offers this advice:

Applied, social media can serve as an elixir, a means to ease the process of moving towards an extended corporate hive with empowered edges. A new structure of enterprise social media means empowering internal & external stakeholders with the ability to communicate (work) more fluidly across an extended architecture and share information.

Social media is not meant to gut the organization or its purpose. Nor is it meant to build individual stars in an enterprise. Instead it should support achieving a better result across teams of people by helping the culture migrate to modern information usage. The end results could be more productivity, better customer relationships, financial rewards and revamped, better policies.

Geoff goes on to pinpoint some areas for assessment and change.  I've pulled out a few that I think are particularly relevant for nonprofits:

  • Is there a process to vet online donor, member, or stakeholder feedback? Or does the program department not interact with communications? And why?
  • Review processes that involve many departments across the
    organization that take weeks to approve a press release or a web page
    will not allow for live conversations about real issues
  • Does the organization have processes that enable
    rapid adjustment strategies based on evolving conversations.
  • Impressions and views are no longer viable measurements.
    Interactions that lead towards a goal are. How are people rewarded for
    communicating? Impressions or results?
  • Does legal prevent communications from occurring? What’s the barometer? Is the protection worth it in the new environment?

Is your nonprofit effecting culture change within to fully embrace social media?   Is your social media strategy stopped in its tracks from silo culture?   Could your organization's use of social media be more effective if your leadership and whole organization embraced it?


Jeremiah Owyang, How Best Buy Uses Social Media To Change Internal Culture
Jeremiah Owyang,  What's Wrong with Corporate Social Media and How To Fix It
Charlene Li,  Why Social Media Fails and How To Fix It
Geoff Livingston,  The Cultural Challenge to Integration
Geoff Livingston,  From the Silo to Hive
Geoff Livingston,  Examining Siloed Processes
Toby Bloomberg, Social Media Marketing


Beth Kanter, BlogHer CE for Nonprofits, is the author of Beth's Blog


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